Friday, October 4, 2019

Disciplined Breaks, Two Years On

I described Disciplined Breaks here in 2017.

Sometimes people ask me how that's working.

I wish my answer was more confident and assertive, but what I can say is "it works great when we do it."

I use Disciplined Breaks in all of my training and coaching engagements, and often in conference talks. It works. 100% of the time it works. It works so well that people feel like they're cheating. They feel guilty for not being tired.

When I'm not there to enforce it, the teams practice it sporadically at best. When they work solo, few of them ever continue it (even though it works 100% of the time).  Worse, when I work solo, I also sometimes "forget" to do it. Yes, even though it works all the time.

We are talking about human beings and their sense of sufficiency and power and their work ethic and competitive, go-getter training.
Disciplined Breaks is a behavioral skill, and all behavioral skills (especially formal disciplines) are hard.
We are better at this when it's a special circumstance, an event like training or coaching or mob programming for a week. We're better when we support and remind each other. We're better when it's clearly expected of us. We're better at it when someone in charge expects it of us.

Lacking some external drivers we tend to be inconsistent -- not just students, but coaches and me individually.

Here are some patterns we see:

This is typical non-break-taking behavior. People feel that they have to be nose-at-the-grindstone at all times so they take no breaks and grind through the work all day long. Because they're lacking the energy to do their best work, they have to stay at it even longer to get similar results. 

As often as not, they make mistakes. When they go home and have some sleep they are refreshed and they realize what they should have done 4 hours into the day yesterday; which they couldn't see at the time. And they discover the mistakes they made, and fix those. 

They don't take breaks again (nose at the grindstone!) so they're tired by the time they've finished fixing yesterday so they'll have to work twice as long and hard to get their work done today. Maybe they'll do overtime.

When I follow this pattern I can tell how slow and depleted I am by 3pm. I'm aware of being unproductive and "slow" fairly early in the day. I can't concentrate. I'm antsy and have low impulse control. I'm easily distracted. I forget to keep track of my work, my learning, and the time of day even. I'm sort of lost and adrift and trying to force myself to be so.

Why do I even do it? I think it makes no sense to totally break discipline like that. And yet here we are. I have those bad days. I used to have nothing but.

So here is an intermediary pattern:

Here someone takes breaks in the morning or into the afternoon and they are surprised to realize that the breaks work and they're still energized at 2pm!! Since they still have energy, they reason, they don't really need a break so they skip it.

As a result, the energy level that was created by taking breaks is destroyed by not taking breaks, and the work becomes less energized. Now a break is needed for recovery.

We shouldn't need recovery breaks. We take breaks to avoid being tired, not to recover from it.  

But once we're tired, we'll need a bigger break to recover. This is the trap that most people fall into: you end up taking breaks in arrears -- only once you're depleted. But you have to ask yourself, why ever be depleted? What virtue is there in being tired and grumpy and slow-thinking at work?

I guess it's human nature. We would rather skip prevention, and then if we get sick we can have it cured. After all, we might not get all that sick, and maybe we can avoid both cure and prevention by just not succumbing to illness. Which is poppycock, of course. Human beings need maintenance -- either preventative or curative. But one of those is plannable and predictable and manageable. It's just hard to get past "I'll just push on, I'm sure I'll be fine. Or if I'm not fine, I won't whine about it."

Of course, when traveling and consulting "I can rest when I get home" is the thought. But that means we'll focus on work and ignore homelife. Not healthy either. I should come home in condition to participate as a family member, husband, friend, neighbor. So that's also silly once we examine it.

I usually get this pattern "rest when tired" pattern after I've fallen into the pattern of working without breaks for a little while.  Returning to Disciplined Breaks requires me to shift my mindset back to taking breaks in advance of work as a preventative measure. Before I shift back to prevention, I mistake my energized state as one that doesn't need rest, rather than one that comes from having rest. An easy mistake to make. Being human is weird.

This is clearly the better pattern:

Again, back on schedule. We take the breaks so we're energized all day long. We don't skip breaks because we realize that they are to maintain the energy level. We don't need to be tired to take an energy-maintaining break, so we stay full of energy all day long. And the next day. And the next.

Maybe not on the weekend. Maybe I'll just rest when tired. Or maybe not on vacation, because there's so much to see. Oh, wait. That's the all-red pattern creeping back in. Darn it. Humanity is a tough skill.

When I stick with the last (all blue) one, I am energized all day. I have good interactions, and I tend to do good work. I even end the day with a list of things I learned and new insights about working.

When I don't, I don't.

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